Peter Robinson stormed back into electoral favour as he topped the poll in East Belfast.
Almost a year to the day after sensationally losing his House of Commons seat to Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long, the DUP leader was back on top with 9,141 votes.
His first preference total was almost 5,000 ahead of second placed Alliance candidate Judith Cochrane.
An emotional First Minister said: “I am very grateful to the people of East Belfast.”
But he insisted he was looking forward rather than back at last year’s personal drubbing. “If you can't withstand the ebb and flow of politics you've picked the wrong career,” he said. “None of us can change history – it's there and we have to deal with it. What I want to do is to look to the future.”
His comments came as both his party and Sinn Fein – awaiting confirmation of their expected dominant positions in the Assembly – kept up their attack on their Ulster Unionist and SDLP rivals.
Both Mr Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the apparent downturn in the fortunes of the UUP and, to a seemingly lesser extent, the SDLP, was because of the “negative” role they have played in the Stormont Executive over recent months.
And they again singled out the Alliance Party, which was enjoying the prospect of several extra seats putting it within distance of a second Executive place apart from the Justice Ministry, for praise.
Both the UUP and SDLP, whose leaders Tom Elliott and Margaret Ritchie romped home in their constituencies, again denounced the “cosy consensus” of the other three Executive parties.
But as counting resumed today the DUP and Sinn Fein had 35 seats — the DUP 19 and Sinn Fein 16 — while the UUP had six and the SDLP four.
And, as always, the tight battle for the last seat in many constituencies will prove crucial in determining the final overall shape of the next Stormont administration.
As the squabbling between the parties continued through the election results, it appeared the Assembly is most likely to hold its first meeting next Thursday, when Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness will be reaffirmed in office and other ministers appointed.
But the outlook for the UUP looked more uncertain, with some candidates — among them former UUP Assembly chief whip David McNarry and his successor Fred Cobain — struggling to hang on to their seats in Strangford and North Belfast respectively.
Mr Robinson said that the Ulster Unionists in particular might have to ask themselves why they were struggling, after both they and SDLP MLAs voted against the four-year Stormont Budget just weeks ago.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said his party’s performance followed on its recent success in the Irish election when it won 14 seats in the Dail — and rounded on the UUP and the SDLP.
“I think the problem for the SDLP and the UUP is that rather than joining in the Executive, keeping their own particular identity and working with the rest of us, they tried to cast themselves very artificially as being in government and opposition at the same time. That doesn't work,” he said.
The former West Belfast MP said both the UUP and SDLP held seats in the last Executive but had criticised the conduct of the DUP and Sinn Fein, who were the dominant presence in the outgoing administration. The smaller parties had tried to criticise the Government, despite being part of it, and now appeared to have been punished by voters, he added.
Mr Adams also talked of the poignancy of canvassing in his old west Belfast stomping ground.
“I spent the last few days in west Belfast and quite a number of people, particularly elderly people, told me that this was the first election that they had ever voted in that my name was not on the ballot card so that was a highly emotional moment,” he said.
Fears of the turnout falling further were fuelled by reports from various constituencies — early figures included 48% in East Antrim, while 57% voted in Foyle, 53% in Lagan Valley, 46% in North Down, 55% in Upper Bann and 64% in the mainly nationalist West Tyrone constituency. All are far behind figures for elections in recent years — Assembly elections had a 69.9% turnout in 1998, 63.9% in 2003 and 62.9% in 2007.
Last year's General Election saw a 57.6% turnout.